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Rediscovering Pioneers of Black Film

The fifth annual African American Film Marketplace will focus on a forgotten chapter of history.

October 11, 1998|Greg Braxton | Greg Braxton is a Calendar staff writer

The 1930s and '40s are not exactly regarded as the golden age of cinema for African Americans. Most black actors and actresses were relegated to stereotypical, offensive roles in which they were subservient to whites and were not appreciated for their artistry.

But despite the drawbacks, there was also much to celebrate in terms of the small but significant inroads that actors and others made into the industry. "Race movies" and black directors such as Oscar Micheaux are being discovered by a new audience, while actors such as Stepin Fetchit, who were often criticized for their comedic portrayals, are earning a newfound respect for maintaining a sense of professional dignity during the difficult period.

The legacy of black film from those decades--which will include a crop of little-seen films and a collection of black Hollywood memorabilia--will be examined during the fifth annual African American Film Marketplace, a weeklong festival starting Thursday at the Laemmle Grande Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. The festival is being sponsored by the Black Hollywood Education and Resource Center.

"There were so many sacrifices and success stories that came out of that period that have really been under wraps," said festival organizer Sandra Evers-Manley. "Many black artists made the ultimate sacrifice for trying to be an artist during this period.

"It's time that some of these stories and these people are finally recognized, those that paved the way for our future."

Added Henry Sampson, the author of the historical film book "Blacks in Black and White": "There are a lot of film companies and studios that featured blacks in positive roles dating as far back as 1915. They were in stark contrast to what the main studios were putting out. In recent years, black film festivals around the country have been looking more and more at this legacy. There were a lot of positives."

Those in front of and behind the camera, Evers-Manley said, "often had to endure criticisms from the NAACP and others about what they were doing. But those people were really on the front lines, and they had to do what they did."

The retrospective will take place mainly on Thursday and Friday, and will include a salute to Jeni LeGon, a tap dancer who Evers-Manley said was known as "Hollywood's Chocolate Princess."

Besides appearing in films such as "Easter Parade," "Birth of the Blues" and "Stormy Weather," LeGon also had featured roles in such films as "Hi De Ho" (1937), in which she played a dramatic role opposite Cab Calloway. "Hi De Ho" will be part of a daylong festival on Friday honoring LeGon that will include 1938's "Bronze Buckaroo" and 1939's "Double Deal." Also being shown that day is an early Lena Horne film, "The Duke Is Tops."

LeGon, who lives in Vancouver, will be feted Thursday evening at the California Science Center's Kinsey Auditorium in Exposition Park.

The opening night of the festival will include a showing of the documentary "Midnight Ramble: Oscar Micheaux and the Story of Race Movies," a look at the producer-director-writer who has become the most well-known pioneer of early black cinema. (Race films featured all-black casts and catered to black audiences.) The showing of the documentary at 7:30 p.m. will be followed by a panel discussion.

The festival is being dedicated to Lillian Cumber, whom festival organizers describe as Hollywood's first female black agent. Cumber, who ended her 40-year stint as an agent two years ago but is still a personal manager, said last week, "What happened back then was an evolution that turned into a revolution."

Memorabilia from the era, as well as rare stills from films featuring "all-colored casts," also will be displayed, such as a scene from "Prison Bait," a 1944 Toddy Studios film featuring a group of youths known as the Harlem Tuff Kids.

The festival also will feature a closing-day salute to director Michael Schultz, who helmed what many black historians regard as one of the most groundbreaking black films of the last 30 years, the nostalgic high school comedy "Cooley High."

That 1975 film will be screened Oct. 22, along with two other Schultz projects, "Young, Gifted and Black" and the Richard Pryor comedy "Car Wash." A reception honoring Schultz will be held Oct. 23 at the African-American Museum in Exposition Park.

The festival also will be devoted to numerous short films by young filmmakers, film geared to young people and a day filled with independent films such as "Soldiers Without Swords," a new documentary about the black press in America.

"Our goal is to do something like this every year," said Evers-Manley. "We want to look at how things were, and how they have changed. It's important for a culture to see where we've been so that we know where we're going."

For more information on the festival, call (213) 957-4747.

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